A Scottish Murder - Re-writing the Madeleine Smith Story
Jimmy Powdrell Campbell
Premeditated murder obviously implies a degree of forethought.
The general idea is to commit the crime and escape the consequences. That's
what makes it interesting. Murderers can go to great lengths to conceal
their actions. They're illusionists, albeit amateur illusionists, creating
often complex scenarios to establish their apparent innocence.
150 years ago in Scotland, Madeleine Smith sat in the dock
accused of the murder, by arsenic, of her ex-boyfriend. Since that day,
every book on the case has bought into the illusion. The circumstances
surrounding the death of Emile L'Angelier have been probed and dissected
by countless esteemed crime writers but maybe no-one working to a publishing
deadline has the time to get a handle on a story like this. As a writer,
deadline or no, you have to get to know the characters. That puts you
in the unique position of being able to answer the question: which of
these two is the illusionist? You're now half-way to cracking the case.
Whether you know it or not, the key's in your hands.
In every good riddle, we're tricked by our assumptions.
This case remained unsolved for a century and a half because of the all-but-inevitable
assumption that the dead man was the victim. The many celebrated works
- I'd have to say works of fiction - based on the Madeleine Smith story
have always held a certain fascination but the true crime that led to
Scotland's most famous murder trial of the 19th century spun a web of
illusion that almost defies belief. If you're an advocate of the death
penalty, this case might make you think again (then again, if you're an
advocate of the death penalty, maybe thinking has never really
been your forte). If you just like a good murder, I promise you will not
be disappointed, even although this was a "murder" created entirely
by smoke and mirrors; it still has all the ingredients and then some.
At the end of the day, we not only get to meet the real victim for the
first time, but we get an unique insight into the mind of a psychopath
who has managed to escape detection since 1857.
I think I should apologize right now, before you get too
far into this. The full story of the Madeleine Smith case used to be set
out on this page along with a collection of related information, some
of which was almost more fascinating than the story itself. I began
researching the case, around 1990, for a small (but very popular) musical
production on the Edinburgh Fringe. When the production was over, the
research just continued, without any real purpose, and the information
on the case built up to the point that, for want of a better idea as to
what to do with it, it eventually wound up on the internet... here.
At one point, I approached a Scottish publisher and explained
that I had uncovered what I felt was a fairly important story that overturned
some of the central assumptions of one of Scotland's most famous murder
cases but they didn't think there was much of a market for it; "everyone
knows the Madeleine Smith Story." (Seriously, that's what he
said)! I later scripted a four-part semi-dramatized documentary version
for BBC Radio Scotland that was broadcast in 1998 and our research was
also featured in the BBC Knowledge channel's History Fix programme with
Rory McGrath. Towards the end of 2006, however, out of the blue, I got
an email from Tempus Publishing (now The History Press) asking if I would
be interested in writing the book.
The one thing that I didn't think about was the consequence
for the web site of having a book on sale telling what might seem to be
the same story that anyone could read on the web, for free. The fact is
that the account that used to sit here was in serious need of a re-write
since, as I've said, the research was ongoing but, nevertheless, it wouldn't
have seemed fair to people who paid good money for the book - Tempus are
not cheap - only to find that a free version, even missing a few key elements,
was only a quick google away. So... what we have here, at the moment,
is a kind of online intro for the book.
I used to say that the best of the internet is free - I
still say it - and I used to be able to hold these greed-driven amateur-commercial
sites in some contempt - I still do - but I've sold out. I think I've
become one of these people. I'm really grateful to Tempus for the
opportunity to tell the story in print and I'm really grateful to every
individual who has bought a copy but, at some point, I expect that the
sales of the book will tail off (if it hasn't already happened) and I'm
looking forward to being able to re-instate the whole Madeleine Smith
story on the web, where it belongs. So, further down the page here, when
you get to the bit that says "read more..." (with the obligatory
link to Amazon), at least you know it's coming... (and it's going,
at the earliest opportunity). In the meantime, the role of the web
site is to allow those intelligent, perceptive people who have already
bought the book to dig a bit deeper into the story, to access more details
about both the family and, of course, the real facts behind the greatest
trial of the 19th century.
If you haven't already bought the book, you may wonder why
Madeleine Smith was believed, for so long, to have commited murder and
why L'Angelier has always been portrayed as the innocent victim. As one
journalist succinctly expressed it, "why has it taken us all this
time to see through the twisted little b*****d?" (He didn't put
that in print). I think, however, when you read the testimony,
as it was presented, you'll see just how guilty she appeared to be, although
you'll realize, also, how many difficulties the prosecution were faced
with. Given the evidence that was heard, the jury returned the only verdict
they could. It was a miscarriage of justice, but that was always the intention.
The Madeleine Smith story is, of course, not just the most
famous Scottish murder case of the 19th century; it's the story of a family
and of the tragedy that was inflicted upon them because they happened
to be good at what they did. Madeleine's grandfather, architect, David
Hamilton, is remembered with much respect and affection as the "
Father of Glasgow Architecture." On a personal level, he was an immensely
likeable individual. I felt it inappropriate to go into any detail about
his life in the book - people want to get on with the story - but, in
a way, it's impossible to understand Madeleine Smith without getting to
know her family. The following snippets may help put some more flesh on
the bones but a more coherent (and readable) account of David Hamilton's
life is Francis Worsdall's article for the May 1968 Scottish Field (transcribed
here: Works of
David Hamilton, architect).
On the 5th of May 1794, David Hamilton married 16 year old Magdalene
Marshall, the daughter of Glasgow wine merchant, John Marshall. Over the
next 23 years they had 12 children. During
that period, David Hamilton's status as an architect was growing steadily.
There was always a sense of stature rather than ostentation in his work,
strength rather than the mere show of power or wealth.
He seemed to give expression to a need which lay deep in the West of Scotland
psyche: the need not only for respect but, firstly, more importantly,
self-respect. A lifelong association with the City of Glasgow began in
1802 with the designs of Hutchieson’s Hospital
in Ingram Street and the Theatre Royal in Queen Street. There followed
a succession of civic, domestic and ecclesiastic works
which took him to the top of the profession in the West of Scotland.
In 1821, William, aged 25, and David, 19, Hamilton’s two eldest sons,
who had followed him in his profession, died within two days of each other.
William had appeared in perfect health and was writing to inform relatives
of his brother’s death yet he was dead by the next day. Their sister,
Helen, was another who wouldn't survive her parents. She died, at age
28, two years after her marriage and after the birth of her daughter,
Magdalene McCallum who was then brought up in the Hamilton household.
The following year, the Duke of Hamilton engaged
David Hamilton for the re-building of Hamilton Palace. The work which
was undertaken there was on a scale which almost defies description
(although in 1835 "The New Statistical Account" was to make a bold stab
at quantifying what had taken place - "there were employed in the building
the addition to the palace: 28,056 tons of stones drawn by 22,528 horses;
5,534 tons of lime, sand, stucco, wood etc. drawn by 5,196 horses."
Prior to David Hamilton's engagement, more than one distinguished European
architect seems to have fallen in and out of favour with the Duke so it
is difficult to be clear on the actual contribution made by each to the
design but it seems that each, in turn, was presented with the plans of
his predecessor and, ultimately, as is the custom, the Duke himself would
take the credit for the regal splendour of the finished work which was,
in every detail, of his own choosing.
Hamilton Palace, now demolished, was, without
argument, David Hamilton's most magnificent achievement but the familiar,
stately elegance of the Royal Exchange
in Queen Street will always
be commemorative of the man and his time. Work began on the conversion
of the old mansion which stood on the site in 1827. The year previous,
work had begun on the new Royal Bank building (designed by Archibald Elliot
Jnr.) which stands to the west of (i.e. behind) the Exchange and it was
that prestigious contract that introduced the Alloa building company of
John Smith & Son, to the expanding Glasgow construction market.
Smith’s firm was subsequently contracted for the
building of the Royal Exchange and they also worked closely with David
Hamilton (partly as building contractors, partly as property developers)
on the modification and execution of Elliot Jnr.'s design of the Royal
Exchange Square, fire having destroyed, in 1829, the Theatre Royal which
stood at the corner of Queen Street, on the north side of the square.
The property which the Smiths built on that side remained on their hands
for some time. Smith's son, James, lived in one of the houses, at one
point, and the rest were let until buyers could be found. (When, 25 years
later, Madeleine writes about meeting L'Angelier at the family's old quarters
in the Square, that's the house she's referring to).
The Glasgow Herald of the 29th March 1833 carried this announcement:
"At Buchanan St, on 26th inst., by Rev Mr Henderson of St Enochs, James
Smith Esq., wood merchant, Glasgow, to Janet, daughter of David Hamilton,
Esq., architect, Glasgow." Madeleine's birth, two years later to the
day, was announced simply: "At 167 Regent Street, on the 29th March,
Mrs James Smith; of a daughter." Her sister, Betsy, was born at the
same address in 1837 and her brother, John, at Bedford Place (Renfrew
St) in 1839. Another
brother, David, was born the following year but, tragically, he died at
only one month old. The youngest members of the family,
James and Janet, were both born at "Birkenshaw Cottage" in Eastwood, Renfrewshire,
in 1842 and 1844 respectively. John Smith, had been a tenant at "Birkenshaw
House" since 1835. He later purchased the property and adjoining estate
and began work to improve upon his investment. Much of the gardens and
walks throughout the grounds survive today in Rouken Glen Park. James
Smith, by now receiving recognition as an architect, was also involved
and, by 1841, the families of
both Smith Senior and Junior were residing at Birkenshaw House and Cottage.
David Hamilton's death in 1843 was marked by the usual reverential
obituaries but there was a ring of truth to them all. The following, from
the Glasgow Citizen, is fairly typical: "Our obituary
this day contains the name of Mr Hamilton, the eminent architect. About
two years ago, he had an attack of paralysis, from which he never thoroughly
recovered; and for some time past he had been in a declining state of
health. His death took place at two o'clock, on the morning of Tuesday
last (5th Dec). He was in the seventy-sixth year of his age.
"Mr Hamilton’s professional abilities were of the
first order; and in private life, he was distinguished for the singular
amiability of his character, the unaffected modesty of his disposition,
the vivacity of his conversation, enlivened as it often was with anecdotes
of the olden time, and for his genuine worth of heart, lack of self-interest,
and his sense of honour.
"…Few men had more attached friends or were more
warm in their friendships. He was much esteemed by his professional brethren;
and neither jealousy nor unworthy rivalry had any place in their intercourse.
He has bequeathed to all who knew him, the memory of a good example -
he survives in the affections of his friends - and the numerous splendid
works he has left behind, may be regarded as so many monuments commemorative
of his genius."
Collegiate School - Lithograph
by the architect, James Smith
The respect attached to Hamilton's name, in architectural circles, remained
undiminished, but few of his contemporaries would have believed that,
in the years to come, his fame would be surpassed by the notoriety of
A Scottish Murder - Re-writing the Madeleine Smith Story - Introduction:
Thursday, 9th July 1857 - The atmosphere outside the High
Court in Edinburgh was charged to fever pitch as the crowd awaited the
verdict at the end of the most sensational trial of the century. Hanging
in the balance was the life of Madeleine Smith, attractive 22 year old
daughter of a prosperous Glasgow architect. Over the last few days, revelations
of Madeleine's secret romance had been making headlines in London, Paris
and New York. By the end of the trial, in spite of widespread belief in
her guilt, sympathy had swung towards Madeleine and the crowds cheered
when news of the Not Proven verdict reached the street. Madeleine was
free to leave the court but never was she free from suspicion.
The New York Herald announced: "We devote this morning half
our available space to the trial of Madeleine Smith, the young Scotch
lady who was accused of murdering her lover by poison. Our readers will
probably find it the most thrilling narrative of crime, passion and judicial
inquiry that has ever fallen under their notice. No case, in any volume
of celebrated causes, can compare with it for vividness of interest, intense
passion and dramatic effect."
"I have read
accounts of that case before and I thought that I knew it but your
book showed me how ignorant I was of it! I found the tale as riveting
as ever. We are 150 years on from those happenings yet they are
still quite fascinating. I particularly enjoyed the last few pages.
What an interesting
and original theory you have propounded! The tables have been turned
by you in a way that never occurred to me, nor, I suspect to anyone
else who has shown an interest in that fascinating case. I shall
happily commend your book to anyone who displays even a modicum
of interest." - Len
At twenty-two years of age, Madeleine Smith, eldest daughter
of Glasgow architect, James Smith, had become public property. Her story
- the murder of Emile L'Angelier - had all the ingredients: sex, ambition,
blackmail, poison and, of course, mystery. Her remarkable composure, throughout
the trial, only added fuel to the fire; it was as shocking to some as
it was admirable to others. She "stepped up into the dock with all the
buoyancy with which she might have entered the box of a theatre..." Even
so, her place in history was not assured until the foreman of the jury
rose and slowly and distinctly read out the verdict. The New York Herald
journalist reported that, "when the last Not Proven is reached, loud cheers
and hurrahs and hand-clappings rend the rafters, and are raised again
and again, deafening the angry judges who strive in vain to still the
This reaction was yet another feature that sets the case
apart. Many of Madeleine Smith's supporters believed that she may, indeed,
have committed murder, such was their contempt for the deceased. At the
extremes, some asserted that the only tragedy was that she had had to
do it herself when, had they known the circumstances, so many would have
been willing to dispatch L'Angelier on her behalf. Madeleine's hope, expressed
after the trial, that, "God Almighty may yet unveil the mystery," was
never realised in her lifetime.
150 years on, and the case continues to be re-discovered
with tedious regularity. Madeleine's supposedly enigmatic character has
been explored in films, plays, newspaper articles and an endless succession
of books. The path is deep and wide with footsteps leading to the same
anti-climactic conclusion that the jury arrived at in 1857. I suppose
it's the mystery that holds our interest but there remains another story
to be told, and it deals with one simple question that, incredibly, has
remained unanswered for all that time: what really happened?
The traditional version, which has put food on the table
for many an author, can be told very simply. Spoiled society belle, Madeleine
Smith, meets rather interesting French packing clerk, Pierre Emile L'Angelier.
Her father forbids the relationship but she continues to see L'Angelier
secretly. They write literally hundreds of letters to each other. They
meet whenever they can, even if only at her basement-bedroom window. They
fall in love. They make love. They plan to marry in secret (although Emile
would prefer to have the blessing of Madeleine's parents). But time passes
and Madeleine meets another man, William Minnoch, a friend of the Smith
family. Minnoch proposes. Madeleine accepts and she writes to L'Angelier
to end the affair. Emile, however, can't live without her. He's willing
to do anything to get her back. He reminds her of all the letters she's
written, letters in which she expresses her feelings very candidly, rather
too explicitly. If her father saw those letters… Madeleine can't marry
Minnoch while L'Angelier is around. She can see only one way out. She
calmly walks into the local chemist and buys arsenic. When L'Angelier
next comes for their usual assignation at the basement-bedroom window,
she passes a cup of cocoa through the stanchions. The first attempt merely
makes him ill so she repeats the procedure and, on the third occasion,
she succeeds. On the morning of Monday 23rd March 1857, L'Angelier dies
of arsenic poisoning.
It's a passably entertaining story as evidenced by the number
of times it has been told but it is a work of utter fiction and no less
so for all the repetition. The principal players are caricatures, figments
of the imagination and that, perhaps, has been an obstacle for students
of the case since 1857. Without an understanding of the real Madeleine
Smith, the real Emile L'Angelier, the riddle of L'Angelier's death would
almost certainly, as Tennyson Jesse confidently predicted, have remained
The public response to the evidence, as printed, almost
verbatim, in every major newspaper was overwhelmingly supportive of the
accused. As soon as the trial was over, however, began the analysis, the
speculation, and the humbug about declining moral standards. This was
Victorian Scotland and the Presbyterian hypocrisy of the time was still
in full vigour. Here was a lesson to us all. A girl from a thoroughly
respectable family, with every benefit of a sound upbringing and education…
a family who respected the Sabbath and met for prayers every Sunday evening.
Which of us could say their own house was in better order? The explicit
sexual references in her letters were shocking but, in themselves, it
was not they that were criminal. This girl had given herself to L'Angelier
and, under Scots Law, she was his wife. It was her treachery that condemned
her. She was not born evil but she had chosen evil, and her descent into
depravity had begun as soon as she entered into a clandestine relationship.
That foul murder should be the conclusion of this spiral of degeneracy
must come as no surprise.
Before long, like Richard III, even Madeleine's features
and demeanour became unattractive. Her composure was now a defiance; her
smile became a smirk; she grew a "hawkish nose, a steely eye and a determined
jaw." Phrenologists were enlisted to examine the bumps on Madeleine's
head; graphologists, psychologists and criminologists were likewise recruited
to lend weight the latest author's pronunciations. Who can argue with
A few years ago, Madeleine's great granddaughter was contacted
by a writer who was working on the case. A meeting was arranged and the
writer's wife came along too. At one point, Madeleine's great granddaughter,
conscious of being scrutinized, said, "if you're thinking I look anything
like Madeleine, I don't. I take after my mother's side of the family."
The writer's wife said, "oh no, it's just that he likes to study the criminal
The case certainly affords an unique insight into the workings
of an extremely unhealthy and criminal mind but that writer, like so many
before him, was looking in entirely the wrong direction. It's human nature.
We form an impression about a person based upon what we have observed
or what we have been told. From that point on, it's next to impossible
to see that person, or their context, in any other way. It might be complete
and utter nonsense but, once established, it's very hard to rid our minds
of that first impression. Who was Madeleine Smith? Oh, she was that Glasgow
girl who murdered her French boyfriend… arsenic, wasn't it? It is the
connotations that do the most damage, the adjectives that immediately
spring to mind: cold, callous, heartless… well, she must have been, to
do what she did. With the best will in the world, we can't un-create the
Madeleine that has now been established in the minds of so many but...
Footnote: Getting the truth out regarding the Madeleine Smith case is, I think,
important not only for Madeleine's family but, ultimately, for Scottish
Justice. There is, however, an incomparably greater cruelty and injustice
that the British and American people are almost universally unaware of,
and it's happening today. If you find yourself attracted to the truth
behind universally-accepted myths and if you also like the idea of getting
the truth out into the open when injustice is being deliberately covered
up, you may find my current ongoing investigation interesting. It's about
a mass murder that took place earlier this year and was hardly reported
either by the BBC or by the mainstream USA media. With astonishing parallels
to the Madeleine Smith case, the criminals, in this case, have managed
to present themselves as victims all along, while successfully portraying
the real victims as criminals, and the international media has bought
into the illusion for 60 years.
When you study the Madeleine Smith story, you come to understand
the mind of the near-psychopathic personality, his manipulation, his
pathological lying, his gross self-interest, his utter lack of compassion.
This personality, however, is not only to be found in the high security
prison, he is often attracted to and suited to a career in industry or
politics, and that's when he is at his most dangerous. Check out the story